DALLAS — NBA playoff history is loaded with ambitious underdogs against steely defending champions. We’re seeing it now in the Eastern Conference finals as the upstart Indiana Pacers push the reigning champion Miami Heat to the limit. Game 6 in that series, with the Heat leading 3-2 after beating Indiana Thursday night, is Saturday night in Indianapolis (8:30 ET, TNT).
Indiana is not only up against a great team. It’s up against great odds. Historically speaking, when a best-of-7 series has been tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 has won the series 83 percent of the time.
Still, nothing will come easy for Miami. Over the past 33 seasons, only nine teams have claimed the championship. (The Heat have done it twice.) Only four teams (the Lakers, Bulls, Rockets and Pistons) have won back-to-back titles. And a Miami repeat would give the Heat a chance to do what only two other teams have done: pull off a threepeat. (Michael Jordan’s Bulls did it twice; the Shaquille O’Neal–Kobe Bryant Lakers were the other ones.)
Indiana has had only one trip to the NBA Finals, 13 years ago, when the Pacers lost to the Lakers in six games in L.A.’s first leg of its threepeat. These Pacers have had their chances. In fact, they might look back on Game 1 in Miami, when LeBron James beat them with a spin-drive to the left that beat the buzzer, as the game that cost them a second chance at The Finals.
Ominous, too, was the Heat’s 90-79 win Thursday night in Miami. The Pacers led 44-40 at halftime even after a handful of missed shots at the rim and a spate of turnovers. But James, after delivering a fiery speech to his huddled teammates, dominated the third quarter and carried Miami to the pivotal Game 5 victory.
The good news for the Pacers? Half the teams that lost Game 5 after being tied at 2-2 gave themselves a chance for a Game 7 by winning Game 6.
Here’s a look at the teams that have successfully defended their title since 1980 and the toughest challenges they faced:
THE TRAP: First round vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The story: The Thunder, with a couple of kids named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook made the playoffs for the first time as a 50-win eighth-seed. At first it seemed like easy pickings for Kobe and Co., in taking a 2-0 lead at Staples Center. Then things shifted to Oklahoma City and the young guns won both games to tie the series. The Lakers cruised in Game 5 for a 3-2 lead and won it in six at OKC. Few likely remember just how close this was to going the distance.
The decider: In Game 6, the Thunder trailed 91-84 with 4:42 to go. That’s when Durant dropped a 3-pointer, Westbrook followed with a jumper and an and-1, and Durant followed with another bucket. Suddenly, with 2:30 to go, the Thunder led 94-91. Kobe’s 18-foot jumper made it 94-93 and that’s the way it would stay until the final half-second of the game. Kobe missed the potential game-winner, but Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound and stuck it in for the 95-94 lead. Westbrook’s 3-point shot at the buzzer missed and the Lakers moved on.
THE TRAP: West finals vs. Phoenix Suns
The story: After sweeping Utah in the second round, the Lakers met the surprising Suns coming off a sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. Much like the series against the Thunder, L.A. took the first two at home and dropped two on the road. Then came pivotal Game 5 at Staples Center where the Lakers ended all hope for Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire under, not Mike D’Antoni, but Alvin Gentry.
The decider: There was one tie throughout the entirety of Game 5, when Jason Richardson sank a 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left to make it 101-101 as the Suns rallied from an 80-72 deficit earlier in the quarter. Lakers coach Phil Jackson called a 20-second timeout. Everybody in the arena knew where the ball was going: Kobe Bryant. But just like in Game 6 against OKC, Bryant missed. Metta World Peace (he was known then as Ron Artest) had position for the board and put it in at the buzzer for the 103-101 win. The Lakers won Game 6, 111-103, holding on late after allowing a 17-point lead dwindle to 99-96 with 2:19 to go.
THE TRAP: NBA Finals vs. Boston Celtics
The story: The Lakers grabbed control of the series with a Game 3 win at Boston to go up 2-1, but then lost the next two games. They returned home facing elimination for the first time. Game 6 was no contest with the Lakers running away, 89-67, to force Game 7 on their home floor. The big story in Game 6 was the loss of scowling Celtics center Kendrick Perkins to injury. He played less than seven minutes and was out for the biggest game of the season, which certainly played a role in L.A. grabbing 20 offensive rebounds and winning the overall board battle, 53-40, with Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant combing for 33.
The decider: Surely everybody remembers the player who iced Game 7 and sealed a repeat championship for the Lakers: Sasha Vujavic. The Celtics led 57-53 entering the fourth quarter — and no, that’s not a misprint. Bryant scored two of his 11 fourth-quarter points on a couple of free throws to make it 81-76 with 25.7 seconds to go. With 16.2 seconds left, Rajon Rondo hit a 3-pointer from 26 feet to get within 81-79. Phil Jackson called a 20-second timeout with 13 seconds left and Vujavic subbed in for Metta World Peace. Brilliant. Ray Allen fouled Vujavic with 11.7 to go and he calmly sank both free throws for his only points of the game and an insurmountable 83-79 lead.
THE TRAP: West finals vs. Sacramento Kings
The story: Desperately seeking a threepeat, The Kobe-Shaq Lakers breezed through the Trail Blazers and Spurs in the first two rounds with a 7-1 record and made it 8-1 with an opening victory against Rick Adelman’s top-seeded Sacramento Kings. This was a Kings team that was relying heavily on seven players after Peja Stojakovic sprained his ankle in the previous round. (He eventually returned in Game 5, but came off the bench in the next three games and wasn’t his usual sharpshooting self.) That didn’t stop Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and Doug Christie from first taking a 2-1 lead and then taking a 92-91 decision in Game 5 for a 3-2 lead.
The decider: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined for a Game 6 for the ages. They collectively produced 72 points and 28 rebounds with Shaq going for 41 and 17. They combined for 23 of the Lakers’ 31 fourth-quarter points in a game tied after three to force Game 7 at Arco Arena. This one needed overtime and the Lakers prevailed by scoring eight of their 12 points at the free-throw line, including Shaq making both of his attempts to break a 106-106 tie with 1:27 to go. The Kings would not score again.
THE TRAP: NBA Finals vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The story: The Lakers were cruising toward the franchise’s first repeat championship since the Magic Johnson-led 1986-88 teams. They blew through their West foes — Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento — without a blemish and headed into a Finals against Allen Iverson and a Sixers team that, on the surface, looked to be entirely overmatched. Then came the Game 1 jolt at Staples Center: A 48-point, six-assist explosion from Iverson gave Philly a 107-101 overtime win and a 1-0 lead.
The decider: Reality bites, Sixers. Shaq had 28 points and 20 rebounds and Kobe had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the Lakers tied it in Game 2. In Game 3 in Philly, the duo combined for 62 points. Still, the Sixers were within 92-91 with under 30 seconds left. But Iverson, 10-for-29 in the game, missed a close look that was sandwiched by four Robert Horry free throws. The Lakers went up 2-1 and the rest is repeat history in five.
THE TRAP: East finals vs. Indiana Pacers
The story: Reggie Miller’s Pacers were seemingly always on the brink of breaking through. They were again in a classic struggle against Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The series was tied 2-2 thanks to a Miller 3-point buzzer beater in Game 4. Indiana lost Game 5 and avoided elimination in Game 6 despite Miller scoring eight points on 2-for-13 shooting. It set up do-or-die Game 7, a game that could have been Jordan’s last and captivated a record TV audience.
The decider: With Jordan struggling through a 9-for-25 shooting game and going 10-for-15 from the free-throw line, combined with Miller knocking down four 3-pointers (the Pacers shot better than 48 percent), the script was written for Indiana. Then the Bulls’ supporting cast reminded that it wasn’t all about M.J. Jordan hit a pair of free throws to tie the game at 79 with 5:34 to go. He would score just two points the rest of the way on two more free throws. But Scottie Pippen hit a jumper for an 81-79 lead. Toni Kukoc made a steal. Luc Longley’s jumper made it 83-79 with 3:30 to play. With 2:38 left Jordan hit those last two free throws for a 94-91 lead. Dennis Rodman recorded a block and Pippen scored on the break to make it 87-83 with 1:59 left. Ron Harper made a steal with 1:22 to go and the Bulls’ defense held from there to get back into the Finals and ultimately complete their second three-peat.
THE TRAP: NBA Finals vs. Utah Jazz
The story: Finally having made it to the Finals, Karl Malone and John Stockton had managed to tie the series with a pair of wins in Salt Lake City with one more home game coming, Game 5, that could give the Jazz a 3-2 lead and two chances to close out Jordan and the Bulls in their quest to repeat. As we know, Jordan fell ill the night before and we got the “Flu Game” — although other theories have surfaced recently, including his trainer suggesting Jordan was poisoned by a local pizza place.
The decider: Jordan’s teammates were surprised to see him arrive at the arena three hours before the game. Through three quarters he managed to score 23 points while struggling just to keep his head up. The Jazz led 72-67 heading into the fourth and 74-67 just a few seconds in. Then Jordan kicked in. He hit two quick jumpers, then a 3-pointer and another jumper for nine points in the first 3:37 to give the Bulls a 79-77 lead.
With 46 seconds left Jordan made the first of two free throws to make it 85-85. He missed the second, yet tracked down the offensive rebound and, with 25 seconds to go, buried a back-breaking 3-pointer for an 88-85 lead. The Bulls won 90-88. Back in Chicago for Game 6, the Jazz lost a six-point lead to start the fourth and Chicago and Jordan collected ring No. 5.
THE TRAP: First round vs. Utah Jazz
The story: The defending champion Rockets opened the postseason with a 102-100 loss at Utah, tied it up by scoring 140 points and then followed that up with an ugly 95-82 home loss to put their season on the brink in the best-of-5 series.
The decider: Game 4 in Houston saw a couple of former Phi Slamma Jamma compadres annihilate the Jazz. Clyde Drexler scored 41 points that included four 3-pointers, and Hakeem Olajuwon put up 40 points as they combined to go 26-for-40 from the field in the 123-106 equalizer. They did it again in Game 5 with Drexler scoring 31 and Olajuwon scoring 33 as the only Rockets to score in double figures in the 95-91 victory. The Rockets outscored the Jazz 31-20 in the fourth quarter to move on to face championship-seeking Charles Barkley and the Suns.
THE TRAP: Second round vs. Phoenix Suns
The story: Barkley was killing the Rockets. In the Suns’ opening two wins he put up 56 points and 20 rebounds. He made 20 of 31 shots and Phoenix won both games by a combined 46 points. The Rockets came home and enjoyed a blowout of their own while holding Barkley to five points. But in Game 4, Barkley was back at it, going for 26 points and nine rebounds in a 114-110 win that pushed the defending champion Rockets into a 3-1 hole.
The decider: Drexler and Olajuwon just wouldn’t let the sixth-seeded Rockets die. Getting 21 points from Kenny Smith and 15 apiece from Mario Elie and Chucky Brown, Houston avoided elimination in Game 5 with an overtime win in Phoenix and then forced Game 7 with a blowout victory back in Houston. Now it was on to Phoenix. The Suns started hot leading 26-13 after one and 51-41 at the half. But a 40-point third quarter put Houston ahead by two entering the fourth quarter, which went down to the wire. Tied at 110-110 … well, let Rockets.com take it from here:
Everybody expected Mario Elie to throw the ball to Hakeem Olajuwon, but Elie had a feeling he was going to be the one to kiss the Phoenix Suns goodbye. Robert Horry spotted Elie across the floor in perfect position to get the ball to Olajuwon. “Dream was wide-open, but I had my feet set,” Elie said. “I let it go and it felt good.” As his shot swished through the net, he ran toward the Suns’ bench and blew a kiss to let them know the game was over. The Rockets won 115-114.
THE TRAP: East finals vs. New York Knicks
The story: As Chicago focused on a first threepeat in the NBA since the Celtics’ run of eight in a row in the last 1950s and ’60s, sudden doubt crept in after the Bulls had run roughshod over the Hawks and Cavaliers. Patrick Ewing, with Charles Oakley and Doc Rivers and John Starks, meant business. They took a 2-0 lead over Jordan and the Bulls at Madison Square Garden before moving on to the original Madhouse on Madison.
The decider: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took charge. In the must-have Game 3, Pippen went 10-for-12 for 29 points and Jordan offset a 3-for-18 shooting game by hitting 16 of his 17 free throws and dishing out 11 assists in the 103-83 win. Jordan was unstoppable in Game 4, throwing down 54 points that included 18-for-30 from the floor, 6-for-9 from beyond the arc and 12-for-14 from the free-throw line. Series tied. In Game 5, the Garden crowd was treated to (or tormented by) a Jordan triple-double (29 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds), with Pippen adding 28 points and 11 rebounds in the 97-94 win. Say good night, Knicks. The Bulls’ dynamic duo combined for 49 points, 16 assists, eight rebounds, five steals and three blocks as Chicago finished off four straight on the way to three consecutive titles. Chicago built a 3-1 lead over Phoenix in the Finals before closing out the three-peat in six games.
THE TRAP: Second round vs. New York Knicks
The story: Attempting to follow the Lakers and Pistons as back-to-back champs, the Bulls beat the Heat in three games and welcomed the Knicks to town to open the second round. Immediately, New York sent a loud message in taking Game 1 on the road. But the Bulls won the next two, then the Knicks tied it up. The Bulls won pivotal Game 5 in Chicago and the Knicks took Game 6 in New York. Would the Bulls be one-and-done champs?
The decider: The Bulls led Game 7 at the half, 56-51, and never looked back. Jordan scored 42 points and the Bulls outscored the Knicks 54-30 in the second half to reach the Eastern Conference finals and keep alive the potential for a repeat.
THE TRAP: East finals vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
The story: A very strange series had unfolded with the both teams splitting the first four games, each winning one on the other’s home floor, each game decided by no fewer than nine points and three decided by at least 14 points. The series shifted back to Chicago for another pivotal Game 5 which, of course, the Bulls won by 13.
The decider: In Game 5, Jordan stuffed the stat sheet: 37 points, five assists and four steals, and the Bulls’ bench scored 38 points with Scott Williams, B.J. Armstrong and Cliff Levingston scoring 12 points apiece. Chicago won it 112-89 on the strength of a 39-18 fourth quarter. In Game 6, Jordan and Pippen each scored 29 and Horace Grant had 20 points to push the Bulls into the Finals for a second consecutive season.
THE TRAP: NBA Finals vs. Portland Trail Blazers
The story: The Bulls lost Game 2 in overtime at home. The series was on as it shifted to the Pacific Northwest. The Blazers significantly hurt their chances by blowing their home opener, Game 3, 94-84, despite a game-high 32 points from Clyde Drexler. Portland evened it up in Game 4, but like the Cavs in the previous round, not taking care of business at home is a recipe for defeat.
The decider: In Game 5, Jordan and the Bulls jumped out to a 39-26 lead after one quarter and kept the heat coming. Jordan finished with 46 points in 42 minutes. Back in Portland for Game 6, the Blazers played superbly and led 79-64 heading into the fourth quarter, 12 minutes away from forcing a Game 7. Then came the Bulls’ fury, a 33-14 period that thrust them to back-to-back titles.
THE TRAP: East finals vs. Chicago Bulls
The story: With Michael Jordan pushing the Bulls to new heights and challenging the Eastern Conference hierarchy, Detroit’s Bad Boys had a fight on their hands to get back to the NBA Finals for a chance to go back-to-back after preventing the Lakers from a threepeat the season before. Both teams won their first two home games to whittle things down to a best-of-3 series. Games 5 and 6 again went to the home teams, setting up Game 7 at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The decider: The Bulls were pounding Detroit 109-91 and Jordan was on the verge of taking over the East. All he had to do was get one last game. He’d have to wait another year, though. Jordan scored 31 points in Game 7, but Horace Grant was the only other Bulls player to score in double figures. Scottie Pippen finished with two points in 42 minutes. The balanced Pistons got a great game from Isiah Thomas with 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Mark Aguirre had 15 points off he bench and John Salley had 14. Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman each had 13 points and combined for 16 boards to ensure a shot at a repeat. It took just five games to dispatch the Portland Trail Blazers in the Finals.
THE TRAP: Second round vs. Utah Jazz
The story: The reigning champs had a chance to be the first to grab back-to-back titles in 20 years since the Celtics did it in the late ‘60s. The Lakers won 62 games in the regular season and averaged 112.8 ppg. They blew by San Antonio, 3-0, in the first round and met the ornery Jazz in the second.
The decider: With starters John Stockton, Karl Malone, Mark Eaton, Bob Hansen and Marc Iavaroni, and Thurl Bailey coming off the bench, the Jazz rebounded from a wipeout in Game 1 to steal Game 2 at The Forum. They took a 2-1 series lead, fell behind 3-2 and tied it up at 3-3 at home in a 108-80 pasting of L.A. in which Malone, Hansen and Bailey all outscored Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar combined. Game 7, though, was all about Showtime. Magic went for 23 and 16, Byron Scott dropped 29 points and James Worthy had 23. Malone and Stockton were brilliant, combining for 60 points on 24-for-36 shooting, but they didn’t get enough help and the Lakers survived and advanced.
THE TRAP: West finals vs. Dallas Mavericks
The story: The Mavericks, still in their first decade in the league, were making their first West finals appearance and were giving the Lakers fits. Dallas could really score, averaging 109.3 ppg under John MacLeod. After losing the first two games at Los Angeles, the Mavs came home and beat L.A. twice by double-digits to set up the all-important Game 5 on the road, which the Lakers won 119-102 for a 3-2 lead. But the Mavs weren’t done yet.
The decider: In a closely contested Game 6, six Mavs scored in double figures. Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre combined for 45 points and 18 rebounds and Derek Harper had 17 points and 10 assists to keep Dallas’ season alive, 105-103, setting up Game 7 in L.A. This is where this David vs. Goliath tale ends, 117-102. James Worthy was phenomenal with 28 points on 13-for-20 shooting, Magic had 24 points and 11 assists and Byron Scott added 21 points. Abdul-Jabbar, who turned 41 that April, had 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals in 35 minutes.
THE TRAP: NBA Finals vs. Detroit Pistons
The story: The Pistons had finally broken through in the East and defeated the Celtics in the East finals, 4-2, to start a three-year run in the NBA Finals. Detroit stunned the Lakers with a road win to start the series and after being tied 2-2 after four games, the Pistons took a 3-2 lead back to Los Angeles. Game 6 was killer.
The decider: Isiah Thomas was on a mission. He scored 43 points with 25 coming in an amazing third quarter in which he also badly twisted his ankle halfway through the period. Detroit won the quarter 35-26 and surged ahead 81-79 heading into the fourth quarter. It just wasn’t enough. Finals MVP James Worthy finished with 28 points and nine rebounds in 46 minutes and Magic Johnson had 22 points and 19 assists in 45 minutes to even the series. With Thomas hobbled in Game 7, Detroit still managed a five-point halftime lead. But the Lakers applied the crushing blow with a 36-21 third quarter. Thomas was limited to 10 points in 28 minutes, while Worthy wrapped up that Finals MVP with an amazing triple-double: 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.